Simple, Not Trivial: a dive into The Huffington Post’s data visualization

How do we build data stories when a large portion of our audience accesses our content through social media using a smartphone? The Huffington Post’s Hilary Fung and Alissa Scheller sought to answer this question as they dove into some of their data visualization projects during their Friday morning session.


Made up of only four people, the data team at The Huffington Post tackles difficult topics and turns them into impressive projects. These cover everything from NCAA athletic budgets to mass shootings to elections.

“We have to say no to some projects because we are a small team, but we end up with a lot of projects we’re proud of because we take on projects that we think will do well,” Scheller said during the question and answer portion.

The Huffington Post has also found ways to optimize its content for social media. Some tactics include using a “punchy and strong voice” and using larger text, which is easier to view when scrolling quickly on your phone.

One example of this is a graphic designed to show which states have laws regarding transgender people and bathrooms in light of North Carolina’s recent passing of HB2.  For this story, the team created a separate, simplified graphic specifically for sharing on social media.

The Huffington Post's social media version of their bathroom bill graphic.
The Huffington Post’s social media version of their bathroom bill graphic.

A more detailed version of this graphic can be found on their website.

A different way to approach social media is to ensure your stories are easily shareable. Fung presented The Huffington Post’s Sports at Any Cost project as an example of how they built easy social media sharing into a project.

For this feature, data on athletic department budgets was collected from more than 200 NCAA schools and graphics were created for each department. Each school was then broken out into its own individual scorecard, where a user could easily share on social media the details about just that particular school. This was targeted at students, alumni and others who may want to talk about their own school on social media.

Example of a school's scorecard with easy-to-find social media share buttons. Click to view all the scorecards.
Example of a school’s scorecard with easy-to-find social media share buttons. Click to view all the scorecards.

Scheller and Fung also discussed what they’ve done in situations where the data doesn’t yet exist. Examples include stories about people — which perform well on social media — and new stories where the data is just not there yet.

After the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina last year, the issue of whether to display the Confederate flag on public property was brought into the national spotlight. The data team at The Huffington Post wanted to do a story but didn’t have any numbers to work with. So, they found their own data. They searched a public school database for the names of every Confederate leader they had to find how many schools were named for Confederates, then searched for the racial breakdown of the schools. The result was a graphic showing how many black students are attending public schools named for people who wouldn’t allow them to attend that school.

In another instance, they wanted to tell a story about women who choose to not have children and their reasons for doing so. They sent out a survey, color-coded the responses according to the reason, and made a sortable database.

In a section titled, “When the news hurts — How do we quantify stories without dehumanizing them?,” Scheller and Fun shared examples of how to use data when tackling difficult topics. They presented an example of reports of police abuse in Chicago and one about attacks at black churches following the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church.

In discussing how to handle people using many different devices, Fung presented their 2014 World Cup coverage since it was the first project they did in which more users accessed the project on mobile than on desktop. She discussed the graphics they built as well as how they learned to focus on making their presentations optimized for mobile.

Lastly, they discussed The Huffington Post’s ongoing 2016 election coverage. They presented the lead graphics they use for the home page of the site on election nights as well as the graphics they’re using to show delegate counts.

Example of a primary election delegate graphic
Example of a primary election delegate graphic

They also shared a fun graphic they’re doing to keep track of both parties’ races using a “horse race” theme. The graphic can also be embedded into reporters’ stories with the corresponding date locking into place. For big events, they said, they try to build graphics that can be reused on stories.

The Huffington Post's Democratic horse race
The Huffington Post’s Democratic horse race